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Stowaway Who Fell From Sky Raises Security Fears

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Last month, the body of a 16-year-old boy landed in Milton, Massachusetts. Yes: landed, as if it had fallen from the sky. Investigators posited that the boy may have fallen from a plane, but the idea seemed far-fetched. But not too far-fetched, it seems, to be true.

Authorities now believe the boy, Delvonte Tisdale, breached security in Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C., sneaked into the wheel well of a Boeing 737 heading for Boston, died mid-route, and fell from the plane when the wheel well opened prior to landing.

It’s a tragic story on many levels, but I want to focus on what this incident reveals about airport security. Investigators don’t know for certain, but it seems unlikely Tisdale would have passed through passenger security in the terminal. Rather, he would have accessed the tarmac directly, either fooling his way though a security screening or circumventing it somehow.

Thing is, the screening procedure for tarmac workers is much different from what happens in the terminal. Namely: There’s no screening at all.

“Although the X-ray and metal detector rigmarole is mandatory for pilots and flight attendants,” pilot and columnist Patrick Smith wrote recently, “many other airport workers, including those with regular access to aircraft—to cabins, cockpits, galleys and freight compartments—are exempt. That’s correct … apron workers and contract ground support staff—cargo loaders, baggage handlers, fuelers, cabin cleaners, caterers—can, as a matter of routine, bypass TSA inspection entirely.”

So how are these workers screened? After a fingerprinting, a 10-year background check, and a terrorist watchlist cross-check, they are given an I.D. card they swipe before passing through a turnstile. Random physical screenings are performed. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

“All I need is my Port Authority ID,” a JFK apron worker tells Smith, “which I swipe through a turnstile. The ‘sterile area’ door is not watched over by any hired security or by TSA. I have worked at JFK for more than three years now and I have yet to be randomly searched.”

Of course, terrorists have yet to exploit this security loophole, meaning the policy could be sufficient. Still, many are wondering how, as airport security up in the terminal tightens, a 16-year-old was able to stowaway on an aircraft.

“If that was someone with a different motive, if that was a terrorist, that could be a bomb planted on there undetected,” Norfolk, Massachusetts, District Attorney William Keating told the Associated Press. “We feel it’s important to inform federal transportation safety officials that it appears more likely than not that Mr. Tisdale was able to breach airport security and hide in the wheel well of a commercial jet liner without being detected by airport security personnel.”

Investigators have been working in Charlotte to determine how Tisdale made it to the 737, though no details have been made available yet. It’s fair to assume that if the resulting report reveals easily exploited gaps in tarmac security, changes will follow, and fast.

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